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Since forming in 1994, the Olympia, Wash.-based trio Sleater-Kinney has released five albums, making rock critics (most notably the venerable genius/loon Greil Marcus) salivate, gush and generally wax rhapsodic. Media slobber aside, you know a band has some cultural currency when Courtney Love bothers to trash them, even when they don't have a fraction of her market share or a single lousy Versace. Some things in this world are guaranteed: The geeky pundits will keep drooling over bands nobody's heard of, Courtney will snipe and cavil, and the kids, oblivious, will continue buying their 'N Sync albums.
Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney just keeps making great records year after year. Instead of relying on the swoon-inducing formula that made them famous in certain indie-rock circles -- the trademark intertwining double guitar leads, the contrapuntal vocal tradeoffs, the escalating tension erupting into feverish epiphany -- singer/guitarists Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss have bravely reinvented themselves with each album, moving into poppier terrain without abandoning the aggressive edge of their self-titled Chainsaw debut. After Call the Doctor, the first solid evidence of the band's creative potential, Sleater-Kinney switched to the Kill Rock Stars label and replaced drummer Lora Macfarlane with Weiss (also in Quasi), whose innovative rhythms galvanized the band's evolving style. Dig Me Out and The Hot Rock followed in 1997 and 1999, respectively, revealing the band's growing interest in more complex melodies and instrumental textures.
Sleater-Kinney's latest CD, All Hands on the Bad One, pushes this experiment to the next level, combining the confrontational but cerebral punk rock of their earlier records with folky three-part harmonies, poppy hand claps and even the occasional organ (courtesy of Tucker's Cadallaca bandmate Sarah Dougher) and Mellotron (played by Weiss' Quasi partner, Sam Coomes). They sound like themselves, only more so -- wholesome and dangerous, bubblegum catchy and heart-attack serious. According to Brownstein, who spoke with the RFT by phone from her home in Olympia, the new record was a conscious attempt to challenge themselves stylistically: "We really did want to work with our vocals on this record. When I wrote the song 'All Hands on the Bad One,' that was really the impetus for all three of us singing. I wrote the music, and I was singing on the verses. For the chorus, I asked Corin to come up with something to sing, something that Janet and I could sing with her. She started to sing, 'All hands on the bad one, we would be no better,' and then we all were singing. It was really overwhelming. It seemed to really cement the connection that we already had but expand on it, because there's a different kind of connection and dynamic created with the vocals. We really wanted to incorporate that in the other songs."
Although Weiss has only recently begun to contribute harmonies, the vocal interplay between Tucker and Brownstein has always been an essential ingredient of Sleater-Kinney's sound. All the greatest rock singers have one thing in common: They could talk you into anything -- make you cheat on your boyfriend, drop out of high school, worship the devil. Tucker is definitely in that league: She could be the demonic offspring of Belinda Carlisle and Robert Plant, a ferocious, ululating cosmic force that grabs you by the throat and shakes you senseless. It swallows you up, that extravagant, reckless vibrato, and when you see her perform live, electrified with this terrifying energy, you understand exactly what she means when she sings, "I'm your monster, I'm not like you." When she sings, she's bigger than us, bigger than herself, a Frankenstein's monster, a tsunami.
To allow that Brownstein's voice is more ordinary than Tucker's is no insult; almost anyone's is by comparison. Where Tucker throttles, Brownstein insinuates. It's the clash between Brownstein's sly and sweet, slightly nasal Everygirl voice and Tucker's wild keening that distinguishes Sleater-Kinney from the legions of the almost-great, that transforms each song into metacommentary, a dramatic dialogue. Typically, one woman will sing a few bars, then the other will jump in with another vocal line -- sometimes they're singing different parts at the same time, sometimes they're trading off. Like their interlocking guitars (Tucker and Brownstein alternate playing lead and rhythm; there is no bass player), their voices weave through each other, creating a dense and intricate melodic pattern. With All Hands, they still exploit this technique, but they're also combining forces at times, constructing harmonies both conventional and surprising: one part girl-group, one part art-punk. When asked about the evolution of their vocal arrangements, Brownstein remarks that their signature style was "really conversational, with a conscious/subconscious kind of feeling to it. There's some of that on this record, but I think we wanted more cohesion. We had a renewed sense of enjoyment about playing music together and playing music in general. For us, that was best captured in a unified front, all of us together, not equivocating."
A similar collectivism informs their songwriting -- both in process (all their compositions are collaborations, all credited to Sleater-Kinney) and in subject matter. Throughout their career, they've written a lot of songs about being Sleater-Kinney, a band of female rock musicians: "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone," "Words and Guitar," "Little Babies," "Ballad of a Ladyman," "#1 Must Have," to name a few.
This self-consciousness is probably inevitable, given the fact that they're women, they're feminists and they make rock & roll, a genre historically associated with the ritualistic celebration of male sexuality: Elvis' pelvis, Chuck's ding-a-ling, the famous Warhol crotch shot adorning the cover of Sticky Fingers -- in sum, a swaggering legacy of iconic dicks. Not surprisingly, most great rock songs thus far have been about men fucking, trying to fuck or failing to fuck women. Consider the dominant metaphors: cock rock, music with balls, testosterone. How could women possibly perform rock & roll and ignore the inherent ironies? Says Brownstein: "I think there are ways of transforming rock and reclaiming it. We try to have fun emulating different archetypes, stepping into the shoes of some of the historic figures but also changing them and toying with them, trying to re-create them. It's kind of absurd, rock music, especially if you don't historically see yourself as being part of it. You approach it from such an outside role that it gives you a different perspective. There are definitely parts of it that you want to embrace because it feels silly and fun and empowering. And there are definitely parts that you want to smash."
"Male Model" is one of several songs on All Hands that deal explicitly with the renegotiation of gender stereotypes in rock music: "Does he write my songs for me?/Should I try to play just like him?/...You always measure me by him/Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to something big/I'm so sick of tests/Go ahead and flunk my ass." By the time Tucker delivers the command "Take the stage!" in her piercing trill, she sounds triumphant, elated, not pissed off or depressed. "It really has a huge effect on your life to have people singing about you and your perspective, things that you can relate to, rather than to have people singing about you as an object for other people to love or look at or someone they fucked last night," Brownstein remarks. "I remember when I was a teenager, I felt like my role was as a fan, on the periphery. That's not feeling really engaged. It makes the experience seem like someone else's. I'm glad that there are so many different kinds of women playing different kinds of music."
Although any political stance -- particularly a feminist one -- can seem quaint and unfashionable in this post-Lilith age, Sleater-Kinney addresses social issues without coming off as strident or simplistic. "Bringing people together, connecting with people, those things are really important," Brownstein explains. "Saying something honest and putting politics in music are still important. That's not the only thing we are. We're a rock band and a pop band and a punk band, and we're also a feminist band and a girl band. We don't try to compartmentalize those things. I like the fact that they can co-exist -- that we can sometimes be political, sometimes just be funny."
In the end, of course, ideas are only as good as their execution. Sleater-Kinney matter because they rock in an intelligent, memorable, uncompromising way, not because they're women, not because they're feminists, not because they've got some important political message to impart. They've written many great songs over the past six years, and these songs speak for themselves -- over the hype and the backlash, the jabbering of the Greils and Courtneys, the drone of reactionary rock dudes who think female anger is so Alanis, so 1996. "The best way to understand our music -- and I'm sure, because we're written about a lot, it might be confusing to people, what we are and who we are -- is to listen to our music and come to our shows," Brownstein concludes. "I think people will see how it makes sense."
Sleater-Kinney performs on Wednesday, May 31, at the Firehouse. Opening are the Aislers Set and the Gossip.